From the author: This is the 4th of the Halloween-themed stories for October. David Hartwell reprinted it in The Year's Best Fantasy 3, and the story was honorably mentioned in Datlow/Windling Year's Best Fantasy and Horror. Anyone who attended an American high school should understand why werewolves and bad moons are a part of "Origin of the Species." JVP
Romulus stood under an elm in the moon-washed shadow of the long, green sward between Grey Mountain Golf Course’s ninth fairway and the Grey Mountain Country Club, listening to the tinny dance music of Pinehurst High’s prom. He pried chunks of bark off the tree absently with his fingernail, but his focus was on the building, pink light leaking from the windows, a hundred shiny windshields catching the moon in the parking lot beyond, and the sad-leafed whisper of the wind. Shadows passed between the light and the windows, couples dancing, heads close together, gliding by during the slow song, and Romulus wondered which one was Fay with her date, what’s-his-name, the troll.
He looked through the leaves at the moon, three days short of being full, and he scuffed the ground in disgust. Since September, when Student Senate scheduled the dance, he’d known. All the full moons were marked on his day-planner, mixed in with deadlines for college applications, baccalaureate, Senior Academic Awards night and graduation. There it was, a perfectly circular moon on the Tuesday after prom, and he’d known he would be standing outside, skin a little itchy, jaw aching, watching the dance.
When Romulus was a freshman, Dad told him it was regressive genetics catching up. They’d sat in his bedroom, Romulus’ wildlife posters covering the walls, Dad, a little embarrassed, telling him the facts of life.
“You’re getting to that age, son.” Dad pressed his hands on the tops of his knees and locked his elbows straight, clearly uncomfortable.
“I know, Dad.” Romulus scooted farther away on the bed. Dad’s weight pressed the mattress down, and no matter where Romulus sat, he felt like he was an inch away from tumbling into him. And Romulus did know. He’d known for years, listening to his parents talking late at night, marking their calendars, Dad slipping out at dusk the nights of a full moon. What kid wouldn’t know?
“You’re going to start noticing girls more. You’re a sensitive boy,” Dad said.
Romulus blushed. It was true, he did. They’d walk by him in the halls, their backpacks hanging off one shoulder, intent on conversations with each other, and he’d catch himself staring at the almost invisible hair on a naked wrist, the curve of muscle in a neck. But most of all, it was their smell. For the longest time he hadn’t known what it was. Once a month, or so, depending on the girl, he’d catch a stray whiff beneath the shampoo and perfume and hair spray, and his muscles would tense. He hoped to god Dad wasn’t going to say anything about that. That would be too much. He’d rather jump out the window than listen to Dad fumble his way through an explanation of the smell.
Instead, Dad launched into an oblique reference to evolution and the origin of the species. “The genes mixed, son. I know what they told you in your science classes about where man came from, but they don’t know the half of it, the magical half.”
Romulus let out a relieved sigh. Dad wasn’t going to talk about girls after all. Instead he talked about elves and harpies, goblins, giants and humans. “The dominant breed won out and all were assimilated. Everyone’s human, more or less, but sometimes a regressive gene rises to the surface. Do you know what I’m trying to say?” He put his hand on Romulus’ knee. “You’re a special kid. There are others like you, some just like you, some from the other races, a little bit of old ancestry, the old mythologies, in everyone, more or less.”
“Sure, Dad. Thanks for clearing this all up for me. I’ve got to do my homework now. Okay?”
“Oh, good.” Dad let out a noisy sigh, like he’d just set down a great weight. “So you know why things are the way they are?”
“Yeah, I got it.”
Then Dad left. Romulus didn’t do his homework, but lay in bed instead, his hands clasped behind his head, staring at the ceiling, thinking about smells.
So he started paying attention to the lunar calendar his freshman year, and as time wore on he grew a few inches, filled out in the chest, found he needed to shave, and the week of the full moon he didn’t schedule anything at night. Was Dad right? he wondered. Was everyone descended from mythological creatures? Sometimes he wandered the halls during passing period, or he sat and class and tried to figure where the other students came from. Was the cheerleader part elf? Was the junior class president’s great, great, great, great (and so on) grandmother a gorgon? She was frightening enough, and there was a snakiness to her hair when she stood in the wind. He sniffed her, but she smelled purely human. He’d never identified anyone’s deep ancestry until he smelled the troll in the boy who liked Fay, and that was a pure scary fluke. They’d bumped the hall. The troll shoved him off, and in the shove Romulus had smelled him. A line of associations clicked–an instinctive recognition–but so strong that for a second the boy’s hands were twisted claws, and his incisors hung from his mouth like stout tusks.
Romulus hadn’t known whether to run or snarl. And what bad luck! Of all the boys in the school, the troll had to ask Fay to prom.
It wasn’t his fault the stupid Student Senate decided this date for the dance. He leaned against the tree. Fay hadn’t understood, really, when he told her he couldn’t go to the prom. She’d smiled. Was sweet about it. Maybe she even believed him when he stammered his excuses. So she made the date with the troll. Romulus squeezed his eyes shut in frustration. The music changed to a faster beat. Shadows bounced against the window. A couple boys slipped out the doors and walked to their truck, avoiding the security cop in the parking lot. Even from a hundred yards away, Romulus smelled the beer. They only stayed in the truck for a few minutes, then headed back to the dance.
Romulus left the lawn and walked the neighborhoods, choosing streets randomly. He hid from cars–it was long past curfew, and he didn’t want to explain to a policeman what he was doing. Sometimes a dog chained in a back yard caught wind of him and howled. He didn’t howl back, didn’t even growl, but he wished one would break free. They could run the blocks together, or they could stand face to face, teeth showing in the moon. “This is mine,” their postures would say. Maybe the dog would leap, go for his throat. Romulus closed his eyes and felt the night air on his cheek, the stony road beneath his shoes. Or maybe he would leap and the dog’s throat would be in his teeth. He could almost feel the pulse in his mouth.
It seemed for hours that he walked, often with his eyes closed, not paying attention to where he was, trusting his nose to lead him. When a car turned the corner ahead of him, and he dove into a bush, he was surprised to find he was directly across the street from Fay’s house. The car parked. It was the troll’s convertible, top down, looking low, black and ominous in the moonlight. Fay and the troll walked to the porch.
“I had a nice time,” she said, her hands in his between them.
“Me too.” The troll wore a letter jacket over his tux. Even from the bushes across the street, Romulus could see the multiple brass bars glistening in the porch light showing how many times he’d lettered: football, wrestling and track. A thick-necked, thick-wristed, thick-headed wunderkind with perfect balance and the fast twitch muscles of a cheetah. A vague suggestion of Harrison Ford in his chin and smile. A careless black lock of hair that fell across his forehead in an unkempt way that some girls found charming.
Romulus was loath to think Fay could fall for this, but as the two talked, their faces came closer and closer together like an inevitable collision, two lambent planets closing on each other in the night sky, until they were kissing, and Romulus turned away, a bitter tear in each eye.
Later, after Fay went into her house and the troll drove away, Romulus walked back to Grey Mountain Country Club. Other than empty beer cans and broken glass in the parking lot, nothing remained of the prom. He wandered onto the golf course, fell asleep on the third green, and when he woke in the morning, stiff from tiredness and the cold, he saw his own dew-drawn silhouette in the grass.
* * *
In the hallways that Monday, Romulus moved listlessly from subject to subject, avoiding Fay until finally he ran into her between Calculus and Mythology, a class they shared.
They talked outside the door. “Did you do your homework?” she asked.
He nodded. They were supposed write a report on a character from Camelot. He’d chosen Uther Pendragon. As always, he found himself staring. Her complexion fascinated him, absolutely exquisite, like polished silk, pale and smooth, dark-blue eyes, a hint of copper in her blonde hair. He thought about a willow wand swaying on a river bank. Looking at her was like listening to water dance over rounded rocks, all foam and bubbles and deep, still pools.
Fay glanced into his eyes, then looked away. “I don’t think teachers should be allowed to make assignments on Prom weekend.”
“You didn’t get yours done?” His palms sweated just talking to her.
Fay shook her head.
“You can have mine. I’ve got an A in there already without it.”
Fay smiled. “Really? You’d do that?”
Embarrassed, Romulus put his head down. “It’s no big deal.”
She put her hand on his arm. “That’s the nicest thing I think anyone’s ever offered to do for me, but I better face the music on my own.” She stood on her tip-toes, kissed him on the cheek, then slipped around the doorway into the room.
Students streamed past him, intent on beating the tardy bell, but Romulus didn’t move. Slowly he brought his hand up to his face and brushed his fingertips where she’d kissed him.
During class, Romulus barely listened. He focused instead on Fay, who sat a row over and two seats in front of him. The troll sat beside her. Half way through class he passed her a note. She read it quietly, wrote something on it, and passed it back. The troll nodded and put the note in his folder. Mr. Campbell talked at length about the search for the historical King Arthur. In despair, Romulus turned his attention to Campbell. “The real King Arthur, if there was one, may have lived in 5th Century England, a hero because he drove out barbarian invaders. Much of our knowledge of King Arthur came from a historian, Geoffrey of Monmouth, who in the 12th Century set down the reign of British kings. He made most of it up, evidently. But it’s through Geoffrey that we first learn of Merlin.”
Romulus wrote names and dates disconsolately until Campbell said, “The death of Arthur and disappearance of Merlin are the end of wizardry in the world. Belief in mythological creatures fades with every passing century.” He said it within another context, but the words reminded him of something his dad had said about evolution and the magic. Romulus wondered if the biology classes ever touched on this alternate explanation for changes in the species.
Quickly Romulus wrote his thoughts below Campbell’s facts: “What if Merlin’s disappearance caused the downfall of mythological beings?” He thought he’d ask Dad about it later.
Fay concentrated on her own notes. The troll wrote something on a slip of paper, and with a husky whisper, handed it to the boy behind him, a freshman who somehow had been assigned this senior level class–Romulus had stepped between the boy and a pissed off football player earlier in the year, but other than a grateful “thank you,” they didn’t talk–and he gave the paper to Romulus, muttering, “Pass it on.” Behind Romulus sat one of the troll’s wrestling buddies. Romulus often found himself a courier for their stream of letters, mostly directions for the weekend’s parties. The torn paper sat, message up, on the desk–the troll hadn’t bothered to fold it. It read, “I’ll nail her tomorrow night.” He’d scrawled a lopsided happy face below, its eyes two squashed circles. Romulus’ fingers curled up, revolted by the thought of touching it.
Something whacked the back of his head.
“Hand it back, dog breath,” hissed the wrestler.
Romulus grabbed the note, twirled in his seat and banged it on the desk. The wrestler leaned away, a startled look in his eyes. He said, “Hey, I was just joking.”
After a few seconds, Romulus broke his glare and faced forward, and he heard a sigh of relief behind him.
“Boys?” said Campbell.
“Sorry, sir,” said Romulus.
For the rest of the period, the note ran through his brain, “I’ll nail her tomorrow.” The happy face looked more and more evil in his memory. He opened his text to the illustrations, and wasn’t surprised to see a resemblance between the drawing and the book’s woodcut of a troll.
After class, in the hallway once again, Romulus pushed his way through the crowd until he caught up with Fay, but once he reached her side, he wasn’t sure what to say. The certainty he’d had in class faded. Maybe the troll was talking about someone else. How could he ask her what she was doing tomorrow night? She carried her books against her chest, her chin down, as if she were mulling over something.
“Fay?” he said.
She looked up, smiled at him. “Hi, Romulus. Isn’t your next class the other way?”
He blushed; he could feel his face heating, and the heat embarrassed him even more. It was all he could do not to turn away, but he had committed himself now. He had to know.
“I wondered if you wanted to go to the Senior Choral Recital. It’s tomorrow at seven.” As the words slipped out, he knew he’d never be able to keep the date. At seven the sun was still up, but it was a two-hour concert.
Her expression fell. “Oh, I’m sorry. I can’t. Not tomorrow. I . . . have other plans.”
In the pause he heard the truth. The troll’s note was about her. And he knew where they’d go too, Chaney Park, a spot on the bluffs overlooking town. It’s where the troll always took his dates. He was legendary about it.
Fay smiled again, her face perfect in the bustling hallway. Her eyes glistened. Even as his heart ached, he marveled at her eyes that were brighter than they should be, as if they reflected a crystal light no one else saw. Then he caught a hint of her smell. Like everyone else, she smelled of shampoo and deodorant, but underneath was her own essence, a spring-drenched forest, nothing fleshy at all.
“I’d like a rain check, though,” she said. “Ask me again another night.”
Romulus blinked in surprise, and she was gone. Just kids bumping against each other, making their way from room to room.
* * *
That night the moon rose in Romulus’ window, white and fat and unblinking. His lights out, he sat on the edge of his bed, breath short, skin on fire. Inside he was all pressures and cramps, legs trembling. Dad would know what to tell him, but Dad had stolen out the back door when the sun went down. The moon had never seemed so large; it was larger than the window, and the light had never seemed so potent, so penetrating. Romulus scratched at his chest, popping buttons. Where the light touched felt better, not cooled, but caressed in warmth.
Romulus whined, biting in the sound he really wanted to make. He pulled his clothes off. A part of him worried his mother would come to check on him, and what would she think, him standing naked in the pale, moonlit square in his room? She’d caught him in the bathroom the other day, staring in the mirror. She’d said without pausing, “Your father plucks his, you know.”
“What?” he’d said.
“Most people have two eyebrows.” She leaned past him, buffed a spot on the counter, then left.
Confused, he’d looked at himself again. Although he hadn’t been thinking about it at the time, he’d always considered his eyebrows his best mark, in a lupine sort of way, and the shadow between them a distinguishing feature. Dad plucked his?
Of course, he was his father’s son–she wouldn’t be surprised to see him naked in the moonlight either. Still, he worried she might come in. The other part, though, saw himself leaping through the window. He thought, I must go to the forest. Already the trees quivered, waiting for him. And in the trees they would expect him, the entire panoply: elves, fairies, goblins and giants. The other creatures lost in mythical, evolutionary time.
But there would be trolls there too, and dragons. All the old maps said so: in the unexplored areas, here there be dragons.
From the moon-tinted hills beyond town, a thin howl rose in the light. Very lonely. Very far away.
Romulus tried a howl back, a tentative utterance that couldn’t have made it past their front gate.
He did it again, louder. It hurt tearing through his throat that wasn’t quite shaped for it, but it felt good too. Once more. A door popped open across the street, and a neighbor stuck his head out. Romulus buried his head in a pillow. No way Dad heard that, he thought, but he didn’t try it again; and when the moon rose high enough so the light was not so obvious, he curled on the floor to fall asleep.
* * *
The day passed miserably until Mythology, where he hoped he could figure a way to warn Fay, but no matter how he thought to phrase it, his message sounded unbelievable. In the classroom’s afternoon mugginess he doodled at the bottom of his notes. Fay split her attention between Campbell, who moved meticulously through the history of the Knights of the Round Table; and the troll, who smiled slyly at her when she turned toward him.
“Many retellings of Arthur’s legend say that after the boy king took the throne at fifteen, and under Merlin’s tutelage, he rid his country of monsters and giants,” said Campbell.
Romulus sketched a sword rising from a lake. If he had Excalibur, he thought, he would rid this classroom of a monster himself.
When the bell rang, Fay continued writing her notes. The troll stood beside her, put his hand on her shoulder, then spoke softly in her ear. Romulus scrunched his toes in his shoes to keep himself from springing from the desk.
* * *
That evening Romulus finished dinner, told Mom and Dad he needed to take a walk, and went out the back door, but not before he caught a knowing glance between them.
Chaney Park was a six-mile hike up a gravel road that rose too steeply the last three miles to bicycle, and Romulus figured he could be where kids parked by 8:30 or so. There was no question about using the car. He shuddered to think of himself behind the wheel, driving a two-thousand pound vehicle, and the moon pouring through the windshield like a million biting ants.
The houses on his street were new brick and crisply-painted bi-levels, but a block over was an older neighborhood, where the roofs rose to steep peaks, and every house sported a single attic window, a lone eye watching him trudge toward the edge of town. Behind him the sunset flared orange and yellow, but before him only the bluffs’ tops caught the last pale sliver of daylight, and they didn’t hold that long. The woods below already swam in shadows. He crossed the railroad tracks; the blacktop changed to dirt, and soon, thin-trunked trees, rustling with spring growth lined the path on both sides. He trudged up a long hill. At the crest he looked back, the town spread out behind him, stretched along the river, a tiny fiefdom at this distance. Streetlights could just as well be campfires, the baseball stadium glowing on the other side of town, a castle. He turned and walked into the dale beyond, losing the town and the day’s final glow at the same time. A few stars twinkled in the sable blanket.
Romulus took deep breaths. He hadn’t walked at night out here before. He felt keen, sharp. Another breath. Oak. Old oak that had started growing before the town existed. There were other smells he recognized too: fox, a shy one who must have crossed this path only seconds before he came into sight; and squirrel, and damp ferns dripping into moldy leaves, some so deep in shadow that winter’s frost was only inches below.
In the distance, wheels crunched through gravel, and engine noise rose above the murmuring forest. Romulus loped off the road and into the brush, around a great ball of roots from a fallen tree. He gripped two gnarled, woody wrists and peered out. A moment later a car roared by, radio blaring a steady rap thump. A snatch of laughter and a beer can clattered against a rock. Then dust.
He waited until the air cleared before stepping from behind the tangled dead fall. In the hills above, the car’s rowdy passage rose and fell. Hands jammed deep into his pocket, he continued his walk, thoughtful, now that the car had gone. What if Fay wanted to be with the Troll? There would be nothing to warn her about. This trek to Chaney Park could be seen as little more than stalking her. There wasn’t much he could do anyway. Still, he pushed onward, leaning into the road’s steepness, taking each hairpin turn with measured deliberateness. His legs buzzed pleasantly, and he felt as if he could go forever if he had to. With his eyes closed, he imagined trotting along through the forest, tireless, behind deer maybe, waiting for one to drop from exhaustion. He smiled at the image. Several more times he leapt into the covering woods as more cars drove by. He didn’t see the Troll’s car.
Finally the road leveled, but the trees surrounded him thicker than ever, leaning over the road and blocking the stars. It wasn’t until he reached a clearing, and the forest opened before him that he realized he’d made the top. The moon sat on the horizon, a bloat egg, rich and ivory and huge again, as it had been on Sunday in his room, but now there was no window between him and it.
A full moon in the height of its glory. Romulus had never felt its light so intensely. A breeze swept through the tree tops and the oaks creaked. He looked around for a high place, then saw one, a jumbled pile of boulders that made a miniature mountain to his left. He ran to its base, his wavy, gray shadow flowing over grass and brush and branch. Up he clambered, hands down, like feet, fingernails clicking, leaping from rock to rock until he gained the summit. No forest blocking the moon now. He howled. Not self consciously, but a full-throated paean to the night sky. “Oh,” he said afterwards, and he crouched so his hands took part of his weight. Was this the way it was for Dad? thought Romulus, or am I even closer to the past than he is? Could I actually change?
He felt the animal shape beneath his human one moving about. Then the sky darkened as a cloud crossed the moon’s face. Romulus shook his head to clear it, and he looked about him for the first time. To the east there was no sign of the town, but he knew if he walked a little bit farther along the road, he’d be at Chaney Park, where the bluff offered a view of the entire valley.
A car’s headlights cut through the trees below, and in a few seconds, the car itself passed, turned toward the park, and vanished into the forest, its taillights glimmering long after he’d stopped hearing it. The moon was a hand’s-width above the horizon. How long had he been on the promontory? Moaning, he ran down the boulders, careless of injury, hit the road at top speed, and raced toward Chaney Park.
Three cars and a van rested on the picnic area’s lined asphalt, noses pointed toward town, but none of them were the troll’s convertible. Romulus crossed the back of the narrow lot in the tree’s shadows. From one car a muffled conversation mixed with the wind. A sticker on the van’s bumper proclaimed, “If we’re rockin’, don’t come knockin.’”
Past the parking lot the road turned to dirt again to wind up the hill. Every fifty feet or so a private picnic area opened on the left or right, complete with a split-log table and iron charcoal pit. The first one was empty; a rusted pickup occupied the second. Romulus stayed low, just off the path, walking in the soggy remains of last year’s leaves, his nose telling him as much as his eyes. The breeze caressed his face. Other cars waited ahead; he could smell them, the still warm engines, their tires, cigarette smoke. Then he caught it, a distinct whiff of the troll. He growled. A girl’s quivery voice in a car ten feet away said, “What was that?” Romulus crouched even lower in a run, his hands nearly touching the ground.
Then, ahead, clearly in the forest’s silence, he heard Fay. “Don’t!” she said. “I don’t want . . .”
The road rose. At the crest he saw the final picnic spot in the clearing fifty yards below, the troll’s car in the middle, top down, bathed in moonlight. He paused. Where was Fay? He could smell her perfume, and he smelled troll. Romulus spotted them in the back seat, the troll’s dark letter jacket blending into the shadow; he was struggling, holding Fay down beneath him. Her hand rose above him, like a drowning person. Cloth ripped.
Romulus charged toward them, his lips pulled away from his teeth in a noiseless snarl, but everything suddenly felt underwater and syrupy. It took an hour for his foot to hit the ground and an hour for the next. Fay’s hand froze in the air like a marble statue. Slowly, it seemed, so slowly, he came closer.
The troll laughed, the throbbing sound coming to Romulus almost too low to hear. More cloth ripped. A button, a fine pearl colored disk, flipped lazily into the air. Only ten yards away now, but every step seemed to cover less distance.
Then the air about the convertible changed. Even in his urgency, breath tearing through his throat, his teeth aching to bite something hard, Romulus slowed. The air changed, centering on Fay’s hand. A circle of moonlight ten feet around slid toward her. It was if the light wasn’t light at all, but a thin coat of paint, funneling to her hand. For a moment it seemed as if the stars themselves swarmed, each touching her hand until it shone with potency, and her palm turned down. Her elbow crooked as if she were about to embrace the troll. Romulus stopped, nearly touching the car. Now he could see it all. The troll had pushed her back, trapped her legs with his own, pinned her with his weight, one arm stuck behind her, his lips pressed against the side of her face. Her eyes were closed, but not in fear–Romulus had time to study her–she was concentrating. The light flowed down her arm, filled her face. She glowed from within, like a porcelain nightlight. Then all the brightness emptied from her hand in a cascade of sparks, slamming into the back of the troll’s head.
Romulus stepped back, covering his eyes.
When he opened them, he had to blink away a black spot in the spark’s shape to see Fay, now sitting up. She’d rolled the troll onto the car’s floor, and her feet rested on his back.
“Dang,” she said. “Just look at my blouse.” She pulled the torn front together, then zipped her jacket.
She turned to Romulus and said in a voice no different than if she’d run into him in the mall, “What brings you to Chaney Park this time of night, Romulus?”
Her face still glowed, and something glimmered in the back of her eyes, very sharp and ancient. She combed her fingers through her hair. Romulus noticed her ears. They were distinctly pointed. He’d not seen that in her before.
“It seemed a good night for a walk,” he said lamely. The troll snorted beneath her feet, then settled into a comfortable sounding snore. “What are you?” Romulus said.
She stood on the back seat, brushed her hands down her pants in short, brisk strokes.
“Fairy, I think. At least that’s what my mother says. And you?” She jumped out of the car to land beside him.
Romulus tried to answer, but if all his words had been sucked out of him. He attempted to speak a couple of times, but nothing came out.
Understanding came into her eyes. “It’s the moon thing, isn’t it?” She looked into the sky. “That’s why you couldn’t go to prom. Oh, I should have figured it out earlier. But I still don’t know why you’re here tonight.”
Finally Romulus said, “I couldn’t sleep.” His voice rose at the end, as if it were a question.
Fay glanced at the troll, then back at him. She shook her head. “You’re sweet, Romulus.” She looked thoughtfully into the car for a moment, then pulled the keys out of the ignition and threw them into the forest. “Would you like to walk me home? I think I’ve lost my ride.”
Romulus nodded dumbly, so happy that if he had a tail to wag, he would wag it a thousand miles an hour.
They started toward town, leaving the sleeping troll and his car behind.
Romulus took a deep, deep breath of night air. He could smell everything, all of it, leaf, branch and tree.
Fay cleared her throat. “You’re not going to try to bite me, are you?” She sounded only half-joking.
Romulus let the air out in a relieved rush. “Oh, no! Not you.”
“Good,” she said. “That would make it tough for us to date.” She moved next to him.
They walked down the winding dirt road, hands not touching, but very close, both so full of moonish power they thought they’d burst.
This story originally appeared in Weird Tales.